For more than three decades, Gordon Reid charted the comings and goings of aircraft for Australian Aviation, until he hung up his keyboard earlier this year. To planespotters, the softly spoken Scotsman was the ultimate enthusiast. To industry execs, he provided the inside scoop of rivals’ plans. But his understated style hid a giddy obsession. To mark his departure, Adam Thorn gets to know the man behind our greatest, and most successful, column.
Left: Gordon Reid in the cockpit of a Douglas DC-6B at RAAF Base East Sale.
Originally published in Australian Aviation, 2020.
To the untrained eye, each edition of Traffic was nothing more than a jumble of codes and dates, but to planespotting enthusiasts, each told a story. The first entry of the very last instalment, published back in edition 376, was a blockbuster.
“In this issue, we report the delivery of two 787-9s to Qantas.
“787-9 VH-ZNJ msn 66074, Longreach, which carries a special ‘Qantas 100’ livery, was ferried from Paine Field to Los Angeles as QF6027 on 7 November 2019. On 12 November, VH-ZNJ, again as QF6027, was ferried from Los Angeles to London/Heathrow where it arrived on 13 November. VH-ZNJ as part of Project Sunrise then departed London on 14 November on a direct flight to Sydney where it arrived on 15 November. VH-ZNJ entered service with Qantas on 16 November when it operated QF127 from Sydney to Hong Kong.”
The first words refer to the plane model, in this case, a 787-9, the second generation of Boeing’s Dreamliner, its more fuel-efficient replacement for the 767. The second is the aircraft’s registration, or rego, required to be physically marked on every fuselage, much like a car’s number plate. MSN, meanwhile, is the manufacturer's serial number, a unique identifier awarded by the aircraft maker. (The difference? Registrations can be changed, but the MSN must remain the same.) ‘Longreach’ is the aircraft's name. Qantas, incidentally, mostly christens its fleet after locations – Mudgee, Alice Springs, Kakadu and so on – but there are also a few witty asides, such as Waltzing Matilda, Skippy and Retro Roo II. Finally, QF6027 is the flight number, which changes depending on the route. If you’re out spotting, these are the ingredients you’ll want to note down.
The magic of Traffic was in what it didn’t say: Gordon filled your logbook, so to speak, but left working out the significance down to the reader. This was an easy one. VH-ZNJ completed the first non-stop flight between London and Sydney for 30 years, a test flight that acted as a prelude to Qantas’ plans to do it regularly with a new fleet of A350-1000s. Yet, Gordon gave it the same billing that issue as a Beech 1900C delivered to Vortex Air and a DHC-6-300 acquired by AirCalin.
But if reading it required a particular eye for detail, compiling it must have been a whole different matter. Gordon Reid started writing for Australian Aviation all the way back in the early Eighties, and the first edition of Traffic was commissioned shortly after. Researching such a specific list of movements is hard enough in 2020 – see my appalling imitation in issue 378, for comparison – but imagine trying the same when he started? Back then, there weren’t tracking websites or social media or even reasonably-priced phone rates to contact fellow spotters. When Gordon wrote a letter to Australian Aviation proposing the column, founder Jim Thorn’s reaction was the same. “I thought, ‘How would you do that?’ I didn’t know. So I said, ‘Send it in, and we’ll have a look.’ And when he did, I thought, ‘Wow, this is really good.’
“In all my time at Australian Aviation,” agrees Gerard Frawley, who later owned the magazine between 2005-2017, “the most commonly asked question was, ‘Where does Gordon get all the information for the Traffic column?’ To be honest, I never quite knew the answer.”
However he did it, audiences regularly voted it their favourite part of the magazine in reader surveys. Traffic hit the sweet spot of appealing to the magazine’s two major demographics. Enthusiasts loved tracking the movements, while those in the industry saw it as a business intelligence insight, showcasing which operator had taken delivery or which aircraft, or started flying which route. And because his attention to detail was so mind-boggling, and his reporting so obsessive, it was quickly taken as the absolute authority, with airline executives packing their office bookshelves full of back copies to reference.
“I remember one issue I proofread I had to have a chuckle,” says Jim. “He reported a Mirage fuselage on a truck travelling from Gundagai or somewhere and I thought, ‘That's unbelievable!’ You know, the KGB couldn’t do this.”
Gordon Reid at Melbourne’s Essendon Airport in 2009 next to a firefighting Erickson Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane, N217AC, nicknamed Malcolm. “Usually six or seven come to Essendon before they are assembled and then fly to SW, SA, NSW as well as being based in Victoria. Members of the public know them as Elvis, but this one’s name is Malcolm.”
In four days, Gordon Reid will celebrate his 80th birthday. But at the pointy end of Melbourne’s second lockdown, he’s been doing it tough. “It’s been awful actually,” he tells me on the phone. “I think most people are getting tired of it. It makes the day go slow.” Right now, those living in Victoria’s capital are only allowed out for one hour a day and can travel no further than 5km from their house. There’s only so much work he can do in the garden, he says, and reports suggest the stringent restrictions will last for weeks more. Still, his room is currently a mess of old copies of the mag, as he’s been trying to track down his very first entry ahead of our interview. “It’s just my luck that since I left Australian Aviation, it’s been a very interesting time with all these stored aircraft coming into Alice Springs and all these unusual airliners around. There’s not much flying, but what moves is usually of interest.”
I tell Gordon how I was tasked with continuing Traffic after he left and made a total hash of it, despite spending the weekend before press trawling through flight radar websites for hours. Where on earth did he get all of his information from, I ask? It turns out I was doing it all wrong. “It would never work if you just gave it a go once a month,” he says. “Since I started becoming interested in aviation, I’ve always carried a big notebook on me to write things down as I hear them and as I travel around the hangars.” When he started Traffic, he explains, he quickly built a network of contacts, talking to friends who moved around the country and those taking photos. If he got a tip, he noted it down straight away, and then went back to them weeks later to find out what had changed. “You had to keep at it! I wouldn’t say 24 hours a day, but you had to keep an eye on what was going on.”
He was also regularly in touch with his friend Tony Arbon, who writes the magazine’s monthly compendium of new aircraft registrations, to cross-reference details. “I like the registrations,” he says, “but that doesn’t tell you the story of the aircraft. You’ve got to get to know it, its serial number and then work out how long it's been around the country. You might think it’s a new aircraft, but it might have just changed its registration, which can be a bit of a nuisance sometimes.” I gently put it to him that Traffic was his life’s work in many ways.
“Yeah, that’s right,” he says.
Mostly though, he continued writing because it kept up his interest in aviation and his relationship with nearby Essendon Airport. It also allowed him to be granted the crucial ASIC card that grants holders permission to move around airports. Today though, it’s become ever harder, with spotters challenged more at larger airports, which frown on enthusiasts interrupting staff. So now he’s more careful. When he arrives at Essendon, for instance, he nips into the safety office to find out who’s on duty and works out a plan of action with them before going off to take photos.
His approach feels very much in sync with the understated style of the column and the man himself. It’s a point I put Jim Thorn, who tells me a story about a time Gordon showed him a selection of his spotting photos, which showed all the planes rooted to the ground. “They were just sitting there,” says Jim. “I said to him one day, ‘Gordon, don’t be terrified to take a picture of the plane with its propeller spinning or when it’s moving, taking off, landing and flying around. It’s OK to do that. And he looked at me almost aghast! He said, ‘It's not going to come out well’ and I told him, ‘No! You’re a good photographer. Get a different lens.’ So he tends to understand things that way. And I think he wrote that way, too.”
I ask Gordon what he was going to do for his eightieth birthday? It’s, after all, quite the occasion. “You can’t plan anything because there’s nothing to plan for,” he explains. “You’re not even allowed to go to a friend’s house. So no. There’s nothing organised. I’ll just take it as it comes.”
Gordon Reid sitting in the cockpit of a Qantas A380.
Gordon Reid was born in Glasgow, Scotland in October 1940. The first of three sons, his mum would later pack him off 50km south to his grandmother’s house in Prestwick, so she could concentrate on bringing up the younger boys. He was always interested in writing down the numbers of trains and trams and trolleybuses and would use the time away to sit by the side of the railway and note down the steam train numbers as they rattled past. But what got him going was the realisation that planes had registrations, too. One summer he heard a new aircraft was coming in, called the Super Constellation. “And of course,” he says, “you'd be daft not to be interested in an aircraft that looked and sounded like the Super Constellation did. That got me started in my middle teens.”
He later signed up to become a member of aviation enthusiast society Air Britain, which quickly tasked him with compiling movement reports for both Prestwick and Glasgow airports. It’s here he learned the skills and techniques for what, decades later, became Traffic. Being a mad Geography nut at school, he would bring an atlas with him to help deduce the story behind where the planes were coming and going to. And while Prestwick airport may be small, it was then a stop on the transatlantic air crossing, so he managed to note down more interesting aircraft than you might imagine. Still, it wasn’t long before he was spending his summer holidays travelling down to London, booking himself in a youth hostel for a week, and scribbling down regos at London Heathrow.
He left school in 1957 and snagged a job in a bank, but in truth found things pretty slow going. It’s then he started to notice newspaper adverts for ‘Ten Pound Poms’. Back in the Sixties, Commonwealth countries were trying to woo young Brits to make the move, bump up their small populations and help rebuild their economies after the war. Ten Pound Poms, incidentally, referred to the price of the processing fee to migrate, the equivalent of today’s visa charge. So he flagged it with his mother. Did they have any family in Canada or Australia? As luck would have it, they did, with relatives in both Melbourne and Vancouver. He applied to both countries but only heard back from Australia. He sent off his forms in November 1964, and the following April was sat on a BOAC Comet out of Heathrow heading for Essendon.
What did his family think, I ask, when he told them he was moving Down Under?
“My father was aghast, but my mother was all for it,” he says.
The flight itself was interesting enough to justify the migration alone. The kangaroo flight hopped furiously to Cairo, Karachi, Bangkok, Singapore and Darwin before touching down in Essendon. He stayed with those long-lost relatives while he got himself sorted, and managed to bag a job working for Trans Australian Airlines at Essendon airport after just a few weeks of applying, despite his lack of qualifications. It’s fair to say his adopted country gave him a chance at a career in aviation he would have struggled to achieve back in Scotland. “I was lucky in that I didn’t have a wife or kids back home, so everything worked out well,” he reflects.
His job was right up his street, too. He was placed in the aircraft maintenance department at first and was tasked with collecting and compiling the running forms filled out by the flight crew, that noted down the flight numbers and details of how many passengers were on board. The objective, essentially, was to monitor the aircraft movements to manage the flow of aircraft into the hangar. The best bit was the perks. After six months, he was given a concession on domestic flights that allowed him to explore Sydney, and after a year he was able to fly cheaply back to the UK to see his family. And of course, there was a never-ending series of exciting aircraft passing through, from DC3s to DC9s, Friendships and Viscounts.
After a few years, he was promoted to work in the engine overhaul building, and it meant he got sent for stints working in Papua New Guinea. A few years after that, he bagged the role he craved, working in flight operations. It’s a position he stayed in for 20 years. It was a 24-hour operation, with each day divided into three eight hour shifts. He was the problem solver, managing the movement of aircraft in and out of the airport. During his time, Trans Australian rebranded to Australian Airlines, before a merger with Qantas in 1992. “Qantas didn’t know how to turn around aircraft,” says Gordon. “And they would give the aircraft an hour and a half to turn around because they were far bigger planes. But there was an 11 pm curfew at the end of the day, so you had to juggle things to try and keep the flights on time.” He took early retirement some 30 years ago.
“The highlight for me was going to Papua New Guinea because I was interested in what’s called a propliner, and there weren’t many of those about. I flew from Essendon to Sydney in a Viscount and then got on a Douglas DC6B that TAA had cross-hired from Ansett to fly from Sydney to LA. It was an overnight flight, but I didn’t sleep. I just sat there and listened to the sound of the engine run.”
He managed to fuel his passion by hitching rides on some of the more unusual or exciting planes that would arrive at Essendon. “You can’t do this nowadays, of course,” he tells me, “but I would often ask the owner if I could go on a flight with them. I went on a Lockheed Lodestar lots of times. And plenty of DC3s, Martin 4-0-4s and Convairs. I’ve managed to get in quite a bunch of them.” He was made an honorary member of the crew of the very last TAA 727-200 the airline sold to a Mexican company. “I had the pleasure of crossing the Pacific in a 727-200 from Melbourne, and they let me off at Dallas/Fort Worth.”
As a fellow pom in Australia, I wonder if he ever yearns for the UK, and wonders what his life might have been? “No, I didn't really think about it,” he says. “I never, ever regret leaving. I don’t think I could handle the UK winters. I was quite happy to stay here.”
Then, out of nowhere, he asks me a question.
“Have you ever been to Oshkosh in Wisconsin,” he asks?
I haven’t, I say. In truth, I can’t say I’ve even heard of it.
“All right, well, that's one to put in your little back book!” he tells me. “Go to Oshkosh, and you’ll see an airfield with 10,000 aircraft on it and things coming and going. It’s run by a group of people mainly interested in King Airs, but it also attracts a lot of warbirds, and it’s just very relaxed. I’ve driven backwards and forwards across the United States a few times, and you just pick up your hire car, drive 10,000 miles, and when you’ve returned it you’ve loaded another 40 or 50 PC3s in your logbook, and all’s good.”
It’s 11 November and things are looking up for Gordon, with Melbourne’s second lockdown now all but over. I call him to check over some details for this feature and see how he’s doing. Has he been able to get out and about at all? “It’s been four or five months of being closed down so it’s good to get going again,” he says. “One of the first trips we did was a run down to Avalon. We’re allowed to travel 25km from our home, which means we can have a look at an airport that’s a little bit further away.”
Underneath Gordon's gentle exterior, I’ve now learned, lies a frankly exhausting passion for planes. He’s aviation’s Duracell Bunny, and compiling Traffic was a sleep-denying, life-defining, obsession. Australian Aviation’s Ann Grbas tipped me off that the man I really needed to speak to was Rob Finlayson, a photographer who has worked for the magazine for 35 years. He started off as a number in Gordon’s bulging contacts book, but years later the pair became firm friends.
When Gordon worked in port coordination, Rob tells me, his team would work 24-hour shifts between them, finding sleep when they could. “It became notorious,” he says. “If an exotic plane came in at 2 am, or 3 am, he’d want you to call him to get him out of bed so he could go out there and log it. If you didn’t, he’d be livid! Absolutely livid. Your life wouldn’t be worth living. He had to write it down. Because in the days before the internet, if he didn’t log it, he missed it, and he couldn’t add it to his collection.”
There’s one particular anecdote Rob heard on the grapevine – alleged, of course – that he’s desperate for me to include. “His wife has to be the most understanding and tolerant aviation wife in history,” he says. One day, so the story goes, Gordon was at an American airport when he spotted a DC3 with an ex-Australian rego. He told his wife he was going to pop over and say hello quickly to the owners, while she waited in the car. It turned out they were about to go on a test flight, and asked him if he wanted to come along. “Two and a half hours later,” says Rob, “he goes back to the car. And she just accepts that without any dramas. Most of my friends, well, they’d be divorced.”
I had to ask Gordon. Was it true?
“100 per cent,” he admits.
In fact, that wasn’t even the worst of it. “I always wanted to get a flight on a DC 6 freighter,” he explains. One day, on one of the couple’s trips to America, he turned up at the airport to have a nose around and told his better half he was going for a flight that afternoon. “So I left her at 2pm and said ‘See you this evening.’ But I didn’t arrive back until 5am the next morning. We flew from Detroit down to Cincinnati, picked up a load of cargo, and then continued to Dallas Fort/Worth, offloaded the cargo and then, because we didn’t have enough fuel, flew at low level to Dallas Love Field, and then back to Detroit. I didn’t expect to see my wife at the end of the runway, so I snuck back into the motel. But I had to get up at 6am to visit the Detroit zoo, which was a bit of a penalty for me.”
During our original interview, I never did get around to asking quite how they met. The Scotsman fell for his Aussie girl when she worked for TAA in the – perhaps aptly named – traffic section of Essendon airport. “She was handling the passengers on the ground,” he says. “Their office was next door to Operations Control and she was one of a number of grand hostesses who were good enough to come in and see if we wanted a cup of tea in the evening or in the morning. And that's how I met her. We got married in 1973 and we’re still going strong.”
But before I leave him, I have one more question. Surely, even in the midst of Melbourne’s second lockdown, he did something to celebrate his eightieth? “We just went for a walk,” he says. “There’s some nice paths by Melbourne Airport where you can see the kangaroos jumping around. And you can watch the planes take off from Tullamarine, too.”